During the course of this blog, I’ve already made a couple of passing references to the “Minneapolis Sound”; so I guess now is as good a time as any to talk about what that much-discussed label entails. At its most basic level, the Minneapolis Sound is a form of post-disco dance music rooted in R&B, with synthesizers replacing the traditional soul/funk horn section. Prince didn’t “invent” the style, strictly speaking; as we’ve seen (and will continue to observe), plenty of others helped along the way, from Pepé Willie to André Cymone (née Anderson) to Chris Moon and Owen Husney to the Lewis Connection–whose keyboard player Pierre Lewis, you might recall, was the one who lent Prince his first Oberheim Four Voice so he could synthesize those traditional horn parts in the first place. There’s a great collection on Numero Group called Purple Snow: Forecasting the Minneapolis Sound that documents the genre’s early progression–including some early songs Prince actually played on, like the aforementioned “If You See Me” by 94 East and the Lewis Connection’s “Got to Be Something Here.”
What we can attribute primarily to Prince was the formal codification of the Minneapolis Sound as a genre, which he did by simply bringing it to a national audience and turning it into a marketable (and lucrative) style for others to reproduce. But even this process didn’t happen overnight. Case in point: “In Love,” the second track of his 1978 debut album For You, which sounds both exactly like vintage Prince–i.e., the “Minneapolis Sound”–and like something completely different.
If one were to feed the raw data from “In Love” into some kind of genre-identifying algorithm, it would read as a prime exemplar of the Minneapolis Sound as defined above. The main instrument is indeed a synthesizer (or several), with muted, processed drums and a light touch on the low end of the mix. The overall feel is definably “post-disco”–albeit with slightly more emphasis on the “disco” than the “post-”–with a bit of rock influence in the main riff, which sounds like either a synthesized version of a hard rock guitar lead, or an actual guitar double-tracked with a synth.
When one considers the intangibles, however, “In Love” sounds the tiniest bit “off.” The feel is too disco, without the more overtly electronic New Wave influences that would become a staple of the Minneapolis Sound. The synths, after decades of conditioning to brighter-sounding Oberheim models, sound weird to my ears: For You’s endearingly studio-geeky liner notes list Prince as playing a Polymoog, an ARP Pro Soloist, and an ARP String Ensemble, of which only the Polymoog (to my knowledge) would appear on his second album. The Minneapolis Sound was basically the defining style of the 1980s; but “In Love,” for all its structural resemblance to that later style, is still very much a product of the ’70s.
One thing “In Love” unquestionably nailed, however, was Prince’s developing sexual persona. We’ve already talked a bit about how Prince took pains to present himself as a different kind of sex symbol, in fact predating his official debut: his soft falsetto vocals are wide-eyed and innocent, even a bit girlish, but with a disarming lyrical frankness that aims directly between the listener’s legs. “In Love” is one of the most striking early examples of this formula. The chorus is about “falling in love,” of course, and a cursory listen to Prince’s vocal performance doesn’t do much to undermine that basic reading; it could almost be an early Michael Jackson song, for all its surface-level sentimentality.
But pay closer attention, to both the words and their delivery, and there’s a quivering lustfulness lying just beneath the surface: Prince’s speaker has “been wanting to lay you down”; there’s “something inside of [him] / That keeps [him] wanting you.” Just before the chorus, he lays his cards on the table, confessing that he “really want[s] to play in your river.” For me, that’s one of the all-time classic Prince lines: flowery and romantic in the best pop ballad tradition, but also deeply, unapologetically carnal. Michael Jackson may have shared Prince’s fey vocal delivery and slick approach to post-disco funk, but he was never this sexually-charged. One imagines that in April of 1978, there were a lot of teenage girls (and boys) listening to this song in their bedrooms and discovering more about their bodies than they’d planned to when they put the needle to the groove.
Okay, I think that’s enough for today. It’s a busy week, but I’ll try to come back on Thursday for another album track from For You. Until then, enjoy the music!
(I slightly revised and cleaned up this post, with one factual correction: I initially stated that none of the synths used on “In Love” would also appear on Prince’s second album, but it’s been confirmed that he played a Polymoog on “I Wanna Be Your Lover.”)